Belfast is the story of Kenneth Branagh and the search for balance. It shows the director floundering between dramatic and comedic exposition, an unclean dichotomy for fatiguable end of year fare. Belfast almost certainly exists as a bridge between less serious projects. A would-be awards contender that might contend anyway in a year with not enough movies that everyone has seen. It’s a dreadfully dull and politically pointless aside from the perspective of a child, covering The Troubles, a heightened moment of unrest in the modern history of Northern Ireland. Mr. Branagh even refuses to take a side here. The message of the film is that sectarian violence is bad and division is divisive, and through slick cinematography, perhaps there is some emotionally manipulative potential to wring out of a dark history of events, but without any distinct vision, it also seems squarely improbable. There are moments of comedy but there is no joy. The film is full of stagey drama but there is no point.
What the film wants to say but never successfully gets across in its text is that everyone is brave. Those who stayed. Those who left. Those who did anything. They’re all brave and this movie is for them. It does not offer any breadth for the multiple decades of turmoil touched by The Troubles. It misunderstands, even from an outsiders perspective, what either side effectively stands for, or what motivates their positions. As unionists and loyalists banter and fight over territory, it never actually feels like anything is at stake. The dramatic scenes land with less impact than the comedic ones. Somehow the conflict on the street is never believable. Nothing is particularly believable, or nearly as engaging, as Buddy’s nascent love of cinema from other places. Belfast sings when it offers an escape from itself. When Buddy goes with the family to the cinema or watches cowboy films on television and the landscape begins to transform like the pictures he’s watching, it’s the rare moment where the film carries a unique and standalone beauty. It’s never about Belfast. It’s about escaping it, even if you choose to stay.
The cynical take is that someone saw Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and made Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast in response. That also feels like the accurate take. The difference is vast. In Roma, the film is inseparable from the setting. Roma is an honest and unflinching look at childhood living within the soundscape of its sense of place. These thing are not totally alike. In Roma, the aesthetic is analytically attached to the land. It means something and is derived naturalistically from a classical sense of place. The black and white is not simply nostalgically reaching but seems to expose something vital and new about how we frame Mexico. It’s a clear and definable statement, where Cuarón’s direction and cinematography make a hearty handshake deal and trade well in tandem. The way Belfast is framed is with a saccharine rose-colored simplicity wherein the city always feels like a movie set and never a tangible place. It is, instead, a stage for the actors to perform on.
The good news, perhaps the only good news, is that Kenneth Branagh is an actor’s director. His years of deep immersion in the craft is evident when he works with good, capable actors. The stars of the show are Buddy’s Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan). They are both very good and save the scenes they are in from the bog-standard child acting that is the norm here. Buddy’s Jude Hill has to carry more dramatic weight than he is quite ready for. It’s awfully hard to center a film around a child who isn’t ready to uphold the entirety of a movie. It’s a big responsibility. And it feels bad. But the performance is bad next to the deeper understanding shown by his cast of relatives. Such is the risk of child actors. Also of note is the surprisingly unremarkable Judi Dench as Granny and the markedly better Ciarán Hinds as Pop. Yes, all the character’s are named this way, and yes, it’s annoying.
Holistically Belfast is a two-dimensional film. Kenneth Branagh is a simple and unfussy director. He never finds the proper mode of expression for this particular story. It is more bogged down by its place in history than enhanced or especially willing to dig in and explore why any of this matters. Despite being named Belfast, it is not anchored by any remarkable sense of place, and feels more theatrical than cinematic, and yet, is not engaging on either front. There are moments of light comedy that do a good job of alleviating any tension, but then, maybe there should be a little more feeling. What we end up believing, most of all, is that the author’s perspective has been shaped by some really lovely movies. There is a sliver of cinematic imagination, of a place being lifted onto a stage that is enhanced by having a camera on it, but it never truly cashes that check. Belfast is a slight awards contender that feels out of place in any conversation of that type.